- Jul 2021
To comedians, “material”—their jokes and stories—has always been precious, worthy of protecting and preserving.
Compare and contrast the materials of comedians versus magicians.
Collection was an important piece. Protection/secrecy was relatively similar, though with a joke, the item was as ephemeral as a magic act which would have been confounding on it's nature.
Link to Ricky Jay's collection of magic acts and pieces. Other comedy collections include George Carlin, Joan Rivers, etc.
A description of how George Carlin collected material for his comedy. No discussion of how he further worked on or refined it.
Nevertheless, Heftel says, the notes tend to stick close to the major themes of Carlin’s work: “big ideas, the minutia of everyday life, and then language.”
George Carlin's comic craft was to take broad themes and the minutiae of life and craft it together with careful language.
Over time, Carlin formalized that system: paper scraps with words or phrases would each receive a category, usually noted in a different color at the top of the paper, and then periodically those scraps would be gathered into plastic bags by category, and then those bags would go into file folders. Though he would later begin using a computer to keep track of those ideas, the basic principle of find-ability remained. “That’s how he built this collection of independent ideas that he was able to cross-reference and start to build larger routines from,” Heftel explains.
George Carlin's process of collecting and collating his material. His plastic bags by category were similar to the concept of waste books to quickly collect information (similar to the idea of fleeting notes). He later placed them into file folders (an iteration on the Zettelkasten using file folders of papers instead of index cards).
Seeing how his system worked is enough to inspire anyone not to let thoughts go to waste, notes Carlin estate archivist Logan Heftel. “A good idea,” Heftel says Carlin learned early, “is not of any use if you can’t find it.”
Now that they are part of comedy history, it can be hard to imagine George Carlin’s most famous routines as anything but finished products. Whether the infamous “Seven Words” from his album Class Clown (released exactly 45 years ago Friday) or the monologues from his hosting of the first-ever episode of Saturday Night Live (which returns for its 43rd season this Saturday), these routines can seem to have sprung fully formed from his mind. But there’s plenty of physical evidence to the contrary.
It's rarely ever the case (my cognitive bias statement), that anything springs fully formed from the mind.
Generally there's an infrastructure, a system, a method by which ideas or physical things are aggregated, accumulated, and edited into existence.
When seeing them well done, they appear magical because we don't see the work or the process. We will often call them genius, when in reality, they're the result of long hard work.
Take the Pyramids of Giza. They look large and magesterial---and likely moreso in their non-degraded form. But is it so mystical how they may have been built if we were to see the structure and scaffolding that likely went into constructing them?
- waste books
- thought spaces
- George Carlin
- writing process
- commonplace books
- lone genius myth
George Carlin’s file folders These filing systems are all analog examples, but one of my heroes, George Carlin, embraced an analog/digital system: I take a lot of single-page notes, little memo pad notes. I make a lot of notes on those things. For when I’m not near a little memo pad, I have a digital recorder… When I harvest the pieces of paper and I go through them and sort them, the one lucky thing I got in my genetic package was a great methodical left brain. I have a very orderly mind that wants to classify and index things and label them and store them according to that. I had a boss in radio when I was 18 years old, and my boss told me to write down every idea I get even if I can’t use it at the time, and then file it away and have a system for filing it away—because a good idea is of no use to you unless you can find it….[In my filing system there are files for all kinds of subjects] but then there are subfiles. Everything has subfiles….It’s like nested boxes, like the Russian dolls—it’s just folders within folders within folders. But I know how to navigate it very well, and I’m a Macintosh a guy and so Spotlight helps me a lot. I just get on Spotlight and say, let’s see, if I say “asshole” and “minister,” I then can find what I want find. “A lot of this,” Carlin said, “is discovery. A lot of things are lying around waiting to be discovered and that’s our job is to just notice them and bring them to life.”
George Carlin's file system for jokes and ideas.